SARASOTA, FLA. — Jonathan Schoop’s elbow injury isn’t expected to force the Orioles’ starting second baseman to miss an extended amount of time, but his absence from the team’s Grapefruit League opener Friday afternoon served as an early-spring reminder that the team could be in trouble if one of its infielders goes down.
Schoop was scratched from Friday’s game with what manager Buck Showalter described as left elbow bursitis. Showalter said Schoop hit his elbow against something — he wasn’t sure what — and the joint swelled to the point that it had to be drained. Schoop walked around the Orioles clubhouse Friday morning with his elbow wrapped in ice.
Other than the Orioles’ four starting infielders — Schoop, first baseman Chris Davis, shortstop Manny Machado and third baseman Tim Beckham — the team has just one other infielder on the 40-man roster in utility man Éngelb Vielma, who had yet to arrive in camp Friday because he was delayed by visa problems
That forced nonroster infielder Luis Sardiñas into a starting role in Friday’s 6-3 loss to the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium. As of now, Vielma, Sardiñas and nonroster player Rubén Tejada are the three players battling for the team’s utility infielder spot, a position that had been held by Ryan Flaherty for six seasons.
There’s no clear front runner for the spot, but the winner of that competition will likely be chosen because of his glove. Both Sardiñas and Tejada had rough starts to the spring, making fielding errors in Thursday’s intrasquad game.
Playing every day has been a badge of pride for most Orioles veterans. Schoop has been one of the Orioles’ most durable players over the past two seasons. He played in all 162 games in 2016 and missed just two games last year. Machado has played in all but 11 games over the past three seasons. Beckham played in each of his first 47 games with the Orioles before an abscessed tooth and pulled hamstring forced him to miss seven of the season’s final 10 games.
So, in some ways, the Orioles have been lucky their lack of utility infield depth hasn’t been tested more. But it was obvious last year, when both shortstop J.J. Hardy and Flaherty were injured, that the Orioles needed better utility options. The team traded for Tejada, who struggled defensively, before the acquisition of Beckham.
“I’ve said all along, the ‘what ifs,’ ” Showalter said. “Our depth in the infield has been a challenge. It’s a scenario we haven’t really produced a lot down below.”
As much as the focus this spring training will be on making marked improvements in the starting rotation, a key to the Orioles’ success will be improving the team defense, especially because the team’s pitching will again rely heavily on converting ground balls into outs.
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While the competition for the utility spot seems to be a three-player race between Sardiñas, Tejada and Vielma, it didn’t take long for Showalter to recognize a plus-defender in Erick Salcedo, a nonroster invitee who spent last season Double-A Bowie.
After the Orioles’ Grapefruit League opener, Showalter raved about Salcedo’s defense, positioning and awareness, as well as the fact that 11-time Gold Glove Award winner Omar Vizquel was his mentor in the Los Angeles Angels system.
“He’s an aware sharp player,” Showalter said. “He brings us a little something different. That’s why guys like having him on the club.”
The highlight of Salcedo’s day was making an astute play on Ryan Schimpf’s broken-bat grounder to second base in the top of the sixth inning that Salcedo fielded while the barrel spun in his direction about 10 feet away.
“It’s a tough play because you don’t normally have the bat coming to you,” Salcedo said. “I saw the bat and it go to the right side, so I made the play. … I know the team is looking for that, the defense. … I try to make every play I can. That’s my [mentality] right now. I try to make for them the decision hard. It’s all I can do, make the plays and help the team right.”
Showalter said he’s not only looking for the utility infielder who makes the club out of spring training, but also who could play the role after him.
“It’s more than that,” Showalter said. “It’s more than just one guy. There’s multiple guys. It’s all relevant. People say, ‘Oh, gosh. You need pitching.’ Yeah, we also … that utility role is important. It’s one of those things, you don’t realize how important it is until you don’t have it. So, it’s something we’re really going to have to come out of here feeling good about. Not just that guy, but also the guy who is behind him. It’s the same thing as who’s your backup second baseman? Who’s your utility guy? Who’s your backup [to the] backup catcher?”